Down in the engine room of an old four-stack Clemson-class destroyer that had seen better days, Chief Petty Officer William Bergstresser was less than halfway into the morning watch when a violent explosion shook the ship. The lights immediately went out, and in the darkness the chief made his way to a ladder that led topside, avoiding the loud hiss of steam emanating menacingly from the port side of the engine room.
When he emerged into the night air, he discovered “the whole forward part of the ship, including the bridge [was] completely demolished and carried away.” He soon learned that all the destroyer’s commissioned officers had been killed, leaving only Bergstresser and 43 of his shipmates, from an original crew of 159. Chief Petty Officer Bergstresser was no longer just in charge of the engine room—he was now in command of the Reuben James (DD-245), what was left of her.
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